January 9th, 2009
At today’s Wiki White House at Google (also sponsored by the New America Foundation and Wired), Ellen Miller made a great point: as far as government information goes, “public” information should ultimately mean “online” information — citizens should not have to dig through paper in some government office to find out what an agency (or an officeholder) is up to. And the data quality and the presentation matter, because if the information is functionally unavailable even though technically online, it’s not really available. Government databases should be designed to be interoperable with other government databases and with outside data — which as NAF’s Sascha Meinrath pointed out has the potential to open government to real crowdsourcing.
What Sascha was talking about in particular is the primary data that agencies use to produce studies, reports and (ultimately) policy. Citizens and lawmakers usually only see the end results of agencies’ work with that data, not the actual information itself. Opening those massive stores of statistical data to researchers, watchdogs and that crazy guy who’s coding in his basement all night could have serious positive effects, not the least in bringing in a lot more number-crunchers to help with analysis and also with relating that data to other non-governmental sources. Essentially, what he’s talking about is the effective end of a government monopoly on data that the government has gathered — though of course we’d have to balance privacy needs when information about individual people is involved.
Other highlights: Craig Newmark says, free the nerds! Techies working within the federal government have been pushing for years for changes in how federal agencies can use technology, and Craig noted in particular a piece in techPresident by members of the Federal Web Managers Council. The ideas are there — we just need the political will to follow through on them. Plus, Mindy Finn noted that politicians (typically leery of too much openness) can benefit from transparency in a self-protective “flood the zone” way — since people are coming to expect information about public figures to be available online, someone will meet that demand, and putting out the facts him- or herself lets a politician put it in context (i.e., spin it “appropriately”). It’s politics, baby — even in the most open system, spin is still going to be all-important. But with better data available, perhaps the bullshit will be more transparent, too.